I’m a foodie. At age 10, I fell asleep with a copy of the magazine Cook’s Illustrated draped over my face. I consider going to the grocery store an adventure, and sometimes I read Yelp reviews while I’m sitting in the restaurant. My sister laughed at me while I tried frantically to keep a few herb plants alive on my windowsill, and when I told her that I wanted to only eat produce that was in season to “enhance my culinary experience.” The most serious love poem I’ve ever written is a three-page ode to pizza. Kitchen clumsiness and a few too many pieces of burnt toast aside, I’m pretty sure I’m a foodie.

You don’t need to be a gourmet chef or a food scientist to be a foodie. Sometimes, you can be a foodie just by falling for those suave Tasty videos clogging your Facebook newsfeed (and maybe clogging your arteries) or finding deep satisfaction in seeing “The 16 Presidential Candidates Reimagined as Food Puns.”

A foodie is a person with an especially refined or particular interest in food. They can be found with a camera lens at table level as a sunny-side up egg seductively spills out of their burger at Frita Batidos, or perfecting a bird’s-eye shot of latte art at Ann Arbor’s Lab Cafe, all for the perfect Instagram. You may find them perusing aesthetically pleasing food blogs for a recipe to christen their recent freedom from dorm living, or texting friends to make a game plan to tackle Restaurant Week.

The rise of foodie culture is inextricably linked to the growing digital world and increasing dependence on social media. The organization Spoon University has ridden this trend in the online food community to success both at Michigan and elsewhere. “Spoon” is an online publication run by college students that focuses on producing food-related content. The website was launched in 2013 by Sarah Adler and Mackenzie Barth during their time as undergraduates at Northwestern University.

Spoon currently has more than 100 chapters at colleges and universities across the country and has even begun to expand internationally to the University of St. Andrews and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, as well as University of Delhi in India. The chapter here at Michigan was one of the first five chapters.

I met with LSA senior Sara Estes who is currently the editorial manager of the University’s chapter of Spoon, to learn more. 

As editorial manager, Estes is responsible for overseeing all written content and for helping writers through the article-writing process.

“I usually come with a few things I want to get written about restaurants that are opening or closing, or events on campus,” Estes said. “Throughout the week I’m helping writers if they have any questions, and editing all of the local articles.”

Writers choose to write local articles (Ann Arbor-specific) such as “15 Reasons You’re Gaining the Freshman 15 at Michigan”  or “The 10 Most Instagrammed Foods in Ann Arbor,” which go through the editing process at the local chapters “National” articles such as “5 Ways to Cure Your Nasty Cold With Help From Beyonce” are sent to Spoon Headquarters in New York. There, editors decide whether to approve and/or edit the content before permitting the University chapter to publish it locally.

Estes first got involved with Spoon when it began at Michigan in 2013. She was a sophomore looking to dabble in the intersection of writing and foodie culture.

“It was small then, maybe 15 or 20 of us on the editorial side,” Estes said. Now Michigan’s Spoon Chapter has upwards of 90 official members.

In keeping with the communal and collaborative nature of Spoon, Estes hopes to develop leadership in the organization while still respecting the autonomy and creative integrity of contributors.

“Regularly I have an internal battle of making sure everyone is doing what they’re doing, but not totally feeling like their boss,” Estes said. “I want them to feel comfortable asking me questions. (At Spoon) you should make of it what you want — no idea is a bad idea.”

The members meet Mondays in a large group, then split off into smaller groups to discuss the different aspects of the organization.

Spoon often takes cues from seasonal trends or holidays to stay relevant. This can include anything from reviewing a new restaurant opening up on campus to planning an aphrodisiac-fueled meal to woo a prospective Valentine. They’ve published everything from “Which Mediocre Halloween Candy Are You?” to “The Stages of Being Hangry, as Told by the Grinch.”

Food at Spoon University can even extend to health and wellness issues. An article recently written at Emerson College’s chapter discussed the recent introduction of more body-positive Barbie dolls. Spoon at Indiana University recently published an article about lead poisoning in regard to the Flint water crisis, tying in the science of nutrition to an issue that is normally targeted in other news context.

I sat in on an events group that was planning a cookie grams Valentine’s Day event and exploring options of partnering with Insomnia Cookies. Much of Spoon’s success has depended on partnering with local restaurants or gaining sponsorship from companies such as GrubHub or KIND.

The group has also started to investigate options for partnership with other student organizations on campus that incorporate foodie culture into their goals and missions — for example, they hope to collaborate with student group Baking for BRCA, a group that sells baked goods in order to fund BRCA gene research. BRCA mutations can increase the risk of certain types of cancer. 

Where the editorial group met, members bounced ideas off each other, engaging in a collaborative process to come up with possible articles. With thousands of articles floating around in the Spooniverse, the team seeks to be specific, relevant and accessible.

This is where the localized aspect of Spoon becomes important — members pitch ideas such as an article about foods that may be scientifically proven to increase happiness during the dull winter months, or even an article sprouted out of the odd realization that Patagonia, a camping store, sells food. The peek into the Spoon meeting highlighted why exactly the startup runs and succeeds the way it does. The environment is dynamic and fast-paced — members have their laptops open to various previously published Spoon articles, food blogs and master spreadsheets that categorize different articles in the works.

Estes gave me a sneak peek of an upcoming article that compares different foods to various classes at the University. “Of course Comm 101 is avocado toast!” she laughed.

Because Spoon’s content runs the gamut of anything from recipes, to Buzzfeed-style quizzes and listicles, or restaurant reviews or more health- and wellness-based content, it seeks to create an accessible and inclusive environment. The Internet community that allows for connection through the world of food may just be an update to centuries of people coming together over a meal for the purpose of debate, intimacy and celebration.

Spoon hinges heavily on a DIY model — writers can also be photographers, event planners and social media managers and the process of publishing articles mainly relies on brainstorming. The digital interface has also allowed Spoon writers to draw on pop culture, like “10 Stages of the Yom Kippur Fast, as Told by Amy Schumer”, which garnered a lot of attention and ended up on Buzzfeed. The ability to include multimedia aspects such as videos, animated gifs or quizzes creates a logical avenue for Spoon to work with popular websites like Buzzfeed that provide fun, easy-to-digest content aimed at millennials.

Because it is a digital publication, Spoon also takes its social media very seriously. I spoke to the social media managers both at Michigan and at American University in Washington, D.C.

Steve Baboun is the creative director of Spoon at American University, a successful chapter that just turned one-year-old. I asked him for tips to take great food photos.

“Lighting is important, so you need good natural light,” Baboun said. “You need to get up close and personal with your food and not be afraid to manhandle it. Filters are important, but not over-filtering it — just playing around with contrast and brightness. We use a special application called VSCO.”

Estes warned against the dangers of flash in trying to get the perfect food photo, which is important to boosting Instagram traffic — the Michigan Spoon’s Instagram has just passed the 3,000 follower mark.

“Post pictures of things you know people are going to love, like Aventura Patatas Bravas or Totoro Tower,” Estes said. “Other than that, just have really clean photos of food. Never use flash in food photos.”

LSA senior Carly Margolin is the University’s Spoon’s social media director. She echoed Estes’s sentiment about the importance of posting fan favorites of food to build a “base following” and then including new and different photographed culinary adventures.

With their own office and close to 3,000 Instagram followers, the Spoon team at American has big goals for the future.

“We want to be established as the number one foodie group on campus,” Baboun said.

American’s Spoon chapter has benefitted from D.C.’s cosmopolitan environment, which allows them to plan events with many restaurants and publish articles such as the GrubHub-sponsored “21 Delivery Spots Near American’s Campus for When You’re Sick of the Dining Hall.

I spoke over Skype with Louise Gallacher, community manager and co-founder of Spoon at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She studies business management and heard about Spoon through Facebook. The chapter is very new, having started just a few weeks ago with a small team of 10 writers.

“I think the beauty of Spoon is that it’s all conversationally written,” Gallacher said. “It’s not like you have to be formal or you have to be really confident. I think that’s what made me get involved personally: Anyone can do it. Anyone can at least have a shot.”

This accessibility seems key. Readers and contributors are invited seamlessly into a foodie culture. Even the page for the general Spoon recipe article index answers hungry college students’ questions before they even ask them, with category options such as “I’m hungover,” “I’m tryna be healthy” or “I’m a noob” to choose from. The content is specific and instant enough to satisfy any college student’s palate, self-identified foodie or otherwise.

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